Room for improvement: why you can’t always be Mr (or Ms) Perfect

“We think you’re a bit of a perfectionist,” says the partner. The interviewee smiles at what he takes to be a compliment. The partner continues: “but we’re not sure you’ll ever be able to let things go at 95% or 90% of your capability. Do you understand that in law you sometimes have to accept that there are other calls on your time and that you simply cannot get everything right?”

Sound familiar? I’m sure that to many people, it does. When it happened to me, I felt it was a pretty good assessment of me from a person who’d known me for less than half an hour.

The partner is, of course, right about law not being the place for people who are unable to accept anything other than perfection. That’s not to say that you’ll succeed if you stop caring about standards, or that the secret to training contract success is increasing the number of spelling errors in your application forms. What is certainly the case, though, is that firms expect their trainees not to be perfect.

It’s difficult to comprehend the concept of firms understanding this on an assessment day or when filling out an application form, because it feels as though even the slightest error will be costly. In actual fact, the firms are likely – certainly at assessment centres – to overlook minor imperfections and be realistic, choosing to focus on a candidate’s overall performance.

Having been warned of the perils of perfectionism and been asked for examples of knowingly submitting a less-than-flawless piece of work in an interview, the issue arose again on some recent work experience. There, the advice was from an associate who was talking me through a piece of work I’d done in dummy at the same time that she was doing the real thing. I realised quite early on in our read-through that I might have missed a few things, and said that I was disappointed but resolved to catch them next time. The associate said that the phrase “I’ll make sure I get that right next time” is the junior lawyer’s best friend. She told me that people make mistakes with work all the time, and that people often don’t mind the first time it happens. If you fail to correct the mistake, that’s when people start to get a bit miffed.

It can go too far, though. I was once told a story of someone who recruited a new office junior. The new junior was enthusiastic  but every now and again, mistakes would crop up. The errors would be pointed out, but time and again the same thing would happen. Eventually, the boss approached the junior and asked if they were aware of the mistakes that were being made. The reply came, “Yes, but I get most of it right, don’t I? At Uni, 60% was enough for me to get a 2:1. If I get 60% of my work right, I’m happy.”

Firms being understanding of mistakes stands to reason – they know they’re hiring people who are new to the industry, untrained and (despite sometimes feeling like robots) human. Couple those characteristics with the amount you’ll be learning and the high-level of complexity of some of the work that will come your way, and you have a recipe for the occasional minor error. The important thing is to take criticism well, chalk errors up to experience and learn quickly – those are the keys to success in whatever you do. That’s been true in every job I’ve done until now, and everything I’ve seen and been told suggests it will be just as true in the law.

Perfectionism, then, appears to still be a noble aim, and one that is not wholly discouraged by firms. However, it seems realism must sit alongside it in order for it to bring success.

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